Somewhere in the clouds above is the pass, the narrow cleft through the mountains that separates Alaska from Canada. We had left Sheep Camp in the predawn light two hours earlier, making the long, slow slog up Long Hill to the scales, where the gold miners had weighed their gear more than a century before. Beyond the pass lay the Klondike, trackless wilderness dotted with lakes and covered in rich boreal forest. But before we reached Canada, we had to climb the stairs.
The Golden Staircase, named for the gold rush that brought thousands of people to the Klondike at the turn of the 20th century, isn’t a staircase. It’s a thousand feet of steep climbing up the side of a mountain, and depending on what time of year you climb it, can be covered in snow or ice or wet from rain. Today it was rain. Thick gray clouds hung over the mountains, obscuring everything above us.
I looked around at my group, a woman in her 50’s whose bucket list was to be here, her sister and a couple friends brave enough to make the trek. Their faces were flush with exhaustion and determination. They had hired me to help guide them over the pass, and here we were, making the push into the clouds.
The wind whipped at us, driving the rain sideways into our faces as we pulled our way up the rocks, feeling like the packs on our backs would pull us back down, until finally, after hours of trudging we made it. The clouds obscured the view of the surrounding peaks and glaciers, and we were soaked, but every face bore a smile ear to ear. We had made it over the pass, and now it was smooth sailing into Canada and beyond.
The Chilkoot Trail is a centuries-old trail connecting coastal Alaska to the Lake Bennett in Northern Canada. It was originally used as a trade route by the Tlingit people, and gained worldwide fame during the Klondike Gold Rush when thousands of gold seekers traversed it on their way to the gold fields outside Dawson City. Now a part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, the trail hosts thousands of day hikers and backpackers each year and is considered the world’s longest museum. It is a stunning trail, taking hikers through multiple different ecosystems, from temperate rainforest to alpine tundra, to northern boreal forest.
It usually takes 3-5 days to backpack the trail, and is an experience akin to trekking in the Alps, with designated communal camping areas that spur camaraderie with other hikers on the trail. I spent three years guiding backpackers along the trail, and these are my tips for making it to Bennett Successfully:
The biggest issue I would run into was people unprepared for the journey ahead. Though the trail is only 33 miles, it is strenuous, and the weather can be vicious, it is not uncommon to be hit with white-out conditions in mid-summer. Hikers should be ready for such varied conditions and understand what they are getting into. The trail is remote, so before going on the journey hikers should do some practice hikes and be in shape for the real deal.
The Chilkoot is in bear country, so anyone planning to hike it should familiarize themselves with bear safety and avoid solo hiking.
Hiking the trail does require a permit, which can be obtained at the National Park Service building on 5th and Broadway in Skagway, AK, and since the trail crosses an international border, all hikers must have a passport.
Having the right gear is essential to a successful Chilkoot experience. Hikers should have good rain gear, extra warm layers, good, previously broken-in boots, extra socks, camp shoes, and a well-fitting pack. Hiking/trekking poles are useful as well.
All camping on the trail is done in designated sites, so knowing which places you are going to stop is necessary. Most people spend three to five nights on the trail. I suggest spending one night at Sheep Camp, the camp just before the Golden Staircase, which will leave you ready for the toughest day of the journey. A typical three night trek is: Trailhead to Sheep Camp, Sheep Camp to Happy Camp, Happy Camp to Bare Loon, Bare Loon to Bennett; and a typical five night trek is: Trailhead to Canyon City, Canyon City to Sheep Camp, Sheep Camp to Happy Camp, Happy Camp to Lindeman City, Lindeman City to Bennett.
The Chilkoot is amazing, no matter the weather. It is a great way to experience the outdoors and to experience history along the way. The trail is littered with artifacts and interpretive information, so don’t be afraid to stop and take it all in. It’s a journey well worth the trip, have a blast!
Peter Zimmerman is an adventurer and lover of all things outdoors. He spent years working as a Mountain Guide in Alaska, and before that as a Ski Instructor in Utah. He is currently in the Portland area exploring all that the Pacific Northwest has to offer.